Tuesday 15 August 2023

Seeking fulfilment, not just work


Wales’ Education Minister, Jeremy Miles, told a meeting of business professionals in Wrecsam yesterday that children should start learning about the world of work from the age of three. He also argued that children should be helped to get off the educational ‘conveyor belt’ which sees progression to a university place as the natural aspirational outcome for the education system and look instead at more technical and vocational qualifications. The latter is a common argument, advanced by Tory and Labour politicians alike; and the idea of early contact with the world of work is hardly a strange one either, although whether it should start as early as three is open to rather more question.

They are both arguments which leave me uneasy, however, because they both raise questions about the purpose of education. Both seem to start from the point of view that the aim of the education system is – and should be – the production of ‘employment-ready’ workers; people with the skills, aptitudes and attitudes required for them to fit into the roles which employers have to offer. There is a lack of any understanding of the potential value, both to the individuals themselves and to society as a whole, of education, learning and a wider skillset not necessarily immediately applicable to any particular job. And although they skate round the issue and prefer to avoid facing up to it, the idea that some children should be encouraged to follow a more ‘vocational’ pathway is, in practice, to argue that higher education should be reserved for the privileged. We have decades of knowledge which tells us that it effectively means (with a few exceptions which enable people to talk vaguely about ‘equality of opportunity’ and ‘social mobility’) separating middle class and working class children into two different educational pathways. They always claim that such a separation is based on ‘ability’, but that ability is assessed on the basis of an educational system which consistently allows children from more affluent households to progress further than the rest. It’s not that I disagree with the notion that a university education might not be the right route for everyone, or the notion that there should be more parity of esteem between a degree and other forms of qualification; it’s just that the economic inequalities of the society in which we live largely predetermine which children follow which route and end up preserving those very inequalities as a result.

It would be far better to start encouraging children from an early age to think about what a fulfilling life might look like. For some – particularly the middle class children who enter the well-paid professions – their future employment might be a large part of that, but for many, work will be a necessary but largely unfulfilling part of their future life. Giving children the means and the skills to seek their fulfilment outside of their working life would be doing more for them than turning them into mere ‘resources’ for employers to exploit. It would also make for a more balanced society; not every worthwhile human activity has an economic value. There is, though, one other thing it would probably also do, which is why supporters of the current economic system – Labour and Tory alike – will shy away from it: it would lead people to question the whole basis of an economic system which sees children as young as three primarily as future workers whose role is to serve the system. Not all of us would see that questioning as a bad thing.

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